This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.



Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Thing To Be Today: raffish.

Raffish means careless or unconventional in dress, manners, or more or less anything else. 

Well, when I say that, it's not raffish to be careless about serious stuff like murder, because at the back of the use of the word raffish is a certain exasperated acknowledgment on behalf of the speaker of something close to envy.

Raffishness does come with a certain charm.

It's true that to be raffish involves embracing the vulgar and the tawdry, but a raffish man (it's usually a man) gives the annoying impression, as he strolls around in his scuffed shoes, that he's having far too much fun to bother with conventional details.

So there's the challenge: to have a day so filled with enjoyment that there's no time to attend to convention.

And, as a further, and much harder, challenge, to do it without losing any friends or making any enemies, too.

Thing To Be Today: raffish. This word comes from raff, which can mean either mean rubbish or rabble. The word might come from the Old French rafle, a snatching up.


Monday, 23 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: monstrosity.

It may be our duty to spread joy throughout the world, but, honestly, on a Monday morning sometimes the only satisfaction to be gained is by snarling at it.

A monstrosity is something obviously large and ugly - and not usually a person. A building, perhaps.

There's a sadly obvious monstrosity quite near me. It's called the KD Tower. It's 279 feet tall, and it's so hideous that I can't even find a public domain image of it.

What will be the most horrible monstrosity you see today? 

I do hope spotting it gives you some degree of surly satisfaction. A fleeting grimace of contempt is acceptable, I think - as long as you find something to admire quite soon afterwards.

Spot the Frippet: a monstrosity. This word comes from monster, of course, which comes from the Old French monstre, from the Latin monstrum, portent, from monēre, to warn.


Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sunday Rest: sprinkletti. Word Not To Use Today.

Lakeland is a useful company that sells cooking and cleaning stuff.

Unfortunately it also sells sprinkletti (ouch!). These are tiny sugar Chrstmas-themed shapes such as berries and holly leaves. 

I don't fancy them myself, but, hey, there's no accounting for taste and they would be entirely acceptable if they hadn't been given such a sickening name.

As it is, I feel too nauseated to want to eat anything.

Word Not To Use Today: sprinkletti. Presumably this is confetti for sprinkling. The word sprinkle probably came from the Middle Dutch sprenkelen, and is related, delightfully, to our word spark. Confetti is Italian, the plural of confetto, which started off meaning a sweet or bonbon. 

It'd be very fussy to fault the derivation: but the word itself is hideous.


Saturday, 21 October 2017

Saturday Rave: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I've written about The Hobbit before, long ago, but today is the eightieth anniversary of the book's publication (and writing about The Hobbit means I can avoid writing about HG Wells, whose birthday it is today, but whose personality irritates me).

Yes, The Hobbit is a relatively slight work, and I'm fairly sure it wouldn't be so well-known if it hadn't given rise to The Lord of the Rings, but it does some things very well indeed.

Here's one of them. I've spoken before of the power of not-very-good verse, and here's some to prove it.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

It's that word pale that does it, and it does it, remarkably, even though gold isn't actually pale. I don't know how or why it works so powerfully, and I wish I did. It might be that it conjures up an image of something far away and mysterious; it might be because it makes the word enchanted seem even more piquant. It might even work because the first three lines are really not very good. As Tolkien says:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves.

I don't know about hobbits, but it works for me.

File:McLarty Treasure Replica.jpg

Word To Use Today: pale. This word comes from the Old French palle, from the Latin pallidus, pale, from pallēre, to look wan.


Friday, 20 October 2017

Furphy: Word To Use Today.

No, a furphy isn't a small hairy robot designed for amusing the children. If anyone's told you so then that, confusingly, is a furphy, for a furphy is a rumour or a fictitious story.

The Australians have cornered the use of the word furphy until now: but then why should the Ozzies have all the fun?

Word To Use Today: furphy. Furphy carts, used to transport water or sewage from the 1880s onwards (I do hope they were clearly labelled) were made at the Furphy family's foundry* in Shepparton, Victoria, Australia.


The twins in this photograph are Jill Mary Ellis and Barrie Cyril Ellis.

During the campaigns of Word War I these water carriers became popular as places for gossip, telling tall stories, and for promulgating rumours about troop movements.

Another theory about the word's origin is that the rumbling of an approaching furphy truck sounded like artillery fire, thus leading to unnecessary alarm.

*Try saying that quickly five times.



Thursday, 19 October 2017

Making parliament angier: a rant.

Our British parliament is a very strange thing. The lower chamber is elected, which provides us with a range of eccentrics such as, I should imagine, is found wherever a country's constitution tips its hat towards democracy.

The upper chamber of the British parliament is even odder. It's called the House of Lords, and it does indeed consist entirely of titled people (though some of them are Ladies (knights and dames and baronets are lesser beings who aren't allowed in)). Ninety two of the members of the House of Lords are so-titled because they've inherited their titles from their ancestors; a few have their titles because of their jobs (ie they're senior clergyman in the Church of England or eminent judges); and the rest, the majority, have been appointed (for life) because they seemed to be wise and useful folk to have around (or because, naturally, they have some dirt on a current politician).

So in the Lords you'll find directors of charities, eminent politicians, captains of industry, academics, actors, and even journalists. The place is well-known for its elderly population, its great intelligence, and its courteous and well-reasoned debate.

(The elected house, the House of Commons, isn't well-known for any of these qualities.)

People have been trying for ages to think of less bonkers way of populating the upper house. Particularly dim-witted, I think, is one I saw in the Telegraph newspaper.

A better system would be to allow all knights and dames into The Upper House that would truly put a cross section of the population in there.

A cross section? 

Oh dear. 

I can't see how it's going to help if people start getting angry.

Word To Use Today: cross. This word comes from the Latin crux, which means cross.





Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: serious accents.

English doesn't use many diacritical marks (by which I mean the lines and wiggles placed around letters that we usually call accents). We see them in words like naïve and Noël, and in very obviously borrowed words like soupçon and fiancée, and that's about it.

And then there's poetry.

Very early English poetry will sometimes be printed with a dot over some of the e s, like this: ė, to show that they are to be pronounced as separate syllables. In Praise of Mary, by that stalwart of verse Anthologies Anonymous, begins:

Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the dayės
 light,
Parens et puella,
I cry to thee; thou see to me!
Lady, pray thy son for me,
Tam pia,
That I motė come to thee,
Maria.

In later stuff, the mechanism changes from a dot to the sort of mark called a grave. It looks like this: è, and even in prose it's occasionally used to show that the difference between a man who's agèd (age-ed) and something merely aged, like wine.

The song from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline that begins 

Fear no more the heat o' the sun 

ends 

Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!

Which makes us wonder, of course, what's so grave about a grave accent?

Well, this:

Nuts and Bolts: grave (as in accent). This word is nothing to do with the burying kind of grave, but it is to do with the solemn kind. This grave comes from Old French, from the Latin gravis, related to Greek barus, which means heavy. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, as has been often remarked, the funky gibbon.





Are you funky today?

In the USA funky is quite likely to mean evil-smelling, so I hope you're not funky in that way, but here in Britain funky will probably mean new-styled, brash, and endearingly eccentric.

Of course sometimes funky means to do with funk music. It's all connected, you know.

By tobacco, actually.

Time to look out one of my sillier hats, I think.

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky. Funk was used in 1600s America to describe tobacco smoke. (The same word was used to mean to smoke tobacco, too.) Funk came from the Old French funkier, meaning to smoke, and eventually this gave rise to the idea of funky music: dirty, soulful, or earthy stuff like the early blues, and therefore something impossibly cool.


Monday, 16 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something fungous.

Fungous can mean the same as fungal, that is derived from, or caused by, a fungus (and those can be things as various as the smell of dry rot, mushroom ketchup, St Vitus' Dance, or the holes in bread). But it has another meaning.

Something fungous appears suddenly, spreads itself all over the place, and then disappears.

So that's practically all TV talent contest winners, then; and to those we can add most youth slang, and, I should imagine, fidget spinners:

 File:FIdget Spinner.png
photo by BlueAvocado

(Fidget spinners? Well, they...sit on your finger and spin. They are said, though without, as far as I can see, any evidence whatsoever, to aid concentration. 

There are videos of fidget spinners in action on YouTube, if you're interested, but I'm afraid I lost the will to live before I got round to choosing one to upload.)

Spot the Frippet: something fungous. This word comes from fungus, which is the Latin for mushroom. It's probably something to do with the Greek spongos, sponge.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Word Not To Use Today.

It may be a convenience to The Word Den's gloriously international audience to know that, although in most places a slush fund is a secret account containing money designed for corrupt purposes, in US ships a slush fund holds money made from the sale of kitchen waste.

Though this is, obviously, a distinction with very little difference.

File:Pig in a bucket.jpg
photo by Ben Salter

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Slush is related to the Danish slus, sleet and the Norwegian slusk, slops. The word fund comes from the Latin fundus, which can mean either the bottom, or a piece of land.




Saturday, 14 October 2017

Saturday Rave: Robert Raikes' Big Idea.

I had no choice but to go to Sunday School. My dad was the Superintendent, you see, so there was no escape. 

I didn't mind too much, on the whole, though being suddenly appointed teacher of the infant class one day when another teacher didn't turn up was a bit alarming. Especially as I was only ten years old at the time.

Sunday School, by my  time, was purely a vehicle for religious instruction and observance, as it largely seems to have been in 1769 when the first Sunday School was started by Hannah Ball in the English town of High Wycombe. 

But that changed rather when the newspaper publisher Robert Raikes got involved in organising Sunday classes for children. In the course of his charitable work he'd seen a lot of poor children incarcerated as criminals, and he believed strongly that education was the best route out of the very great poverty that made crime so difficult to avoid. 

He supported his Sunday School financially himself to begin with (Sunday was the only day when the children weren't at work) and used his own newspaper for publicity purposes. He started the first school in 1780, and by 1831, despite lots of sneering from the already well-educated and opposition from people who were worried about Sabbath-breaking and other forms of undesirable worship, the Sunday Schools were bringing literacy to a quarter of the children in England.

Think of that: a quarter of all the children in England, educated by volunteers.

Soon after that, in 1833, the British Parliament began the process of taking on the burden of providing education for children. 

It was a sign that Robert Raikes' heroic campaign had been won.

Word To Use Today: school. This word comes from the Old English scōl, from the Greek skholē, leisure spent in the pursuit of knowledge.



Friday, 13 October 2017

Word To Use Today: gubbins.

Gubbins is quite possibly the most useful word in the English language.

It's lovely to say, too - do try it - and it means, well, more or less whatever you want it to mean.

(Words like that only increase in value as people get older.)

The word gubbins looks like a plural, but when it means a small gadget (or on some other occasions, when it can mean a thing of little value) it works as a singular. On the other hand, when it means odds and ends, or small pieces rubbish left lying about, then it really is a plural.

Just to prove its worth as an absolute hero of a word, a gubbins can mean a silly person, too.

So, basically, gubbins is pretty much the only word you'll ever need.

And it is such fun to say.

Gubbins!

Word To Use Often Today: gubbins. This word appeared in the 1500s when it meant fragments. It came from gobbon, and is probably something to do with gobbet, which comes from the Old French gober, to gulp down.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Star Trek and racism: a rant.

I understand there's to be the launch of some new Star Trek series, soon.

I'm an original series girl, myself, but I'm always pleased to hear how the Star Trek universe is getting on. A recent article in the Telegraph newspaper had quite a lot to say about Star Trek's anti-racism. This is something of which I, in my position as a long-standing fan, am rather proud.

Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenbury, did quite a lot to challenge 1960s assumptions about Other Types of People. His original Star Trek crew contained the efficient Lieutenant Uhura (I'm not sure if her heritage was explained at the time, but she has a Swahili name); the fanciable Russian Checkov; the efficient and fanciable half-Vulcan Spock; and of course Lieutenant Sulu, a man of East Asian appearance (was he Japanese in the series? I can't remember).

Japan had been at war with the USA only a generation before that original series aired, so to feature as a hero someone of the actor George Takei's Japanese heritage was really quite a statement. It was certainly a great advance on the treatment George Takei's parents received in the USA. They, according to the Telegraph article I was reading, 'had been interred during the Second World War'.

Good grief. 

I didn't know the racism had been that bad...

Word To Use Today: inter. This word means bury in the earth. It comes from the Latin terra, earth. Intern means to detain without trial or charge, especially during wartime. That word also come from Latin, from internus, interval.


Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: epistrophe

Hourly joys be still on you!
Juno sings her blessings on you...
Scarcity and want shall shun you,
Ceres' blessing so is on you.

That last line might sound like a modern teenager: he is so on you you would not believe... but it's actually Shakespeare's The Tempest.  A man ahead of his time, and also a man not to shun epistrophe.

So: do you know what epistrophe is, yet?

Epistrophe is when you finish a series of phrases with the same word. I am great, you are great, and together we will make America great. That sort of thing.

Epistrophe is easy to use, has been around for millennia (when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child... wrote St Paul) and can be very effective.

Even monkeys use it:

File:Miniature brass sculpture of three monkeys.jpg
photo by Norbert Nagel

So, as I try to be pithy, hope to be pithy, and wish to appear pithy, I think today I might give epistrophe a go...

...and stop writing.

Thing To Use Today: epistophe. This word is Greek. Epi can mean more or less anything you want it to mean, and strophē means a turning.





Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Thing To Be Today: in unison.

Do you want to stand out from the crowd, or do you fancy being in unison with everybody else?

Well, it depends, obviously. If the crowd is filling the South Stand of Manchester City's Etihad Stadium then standing out by bellowing:

Hello! Hello!
We are the busby boys
Hello! Hello!
We are the busby boys
And if you are a City fan surrender or you'll die,
We all follow United

would be an act of extreme folly.

On the other hand I can see that joining in with:

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.

might be hugely uplifting.

In my family, when any of us accidentally said something in unison, my mother would always insist on us making a wish and then saying the name of a poet. If you said Goldsmith then your wish would apparently come true through money (gold, geddit?). If you said Shakespeare then your wish would come true through violence. 

My insistence upon saying Emily Bronte or TS Eliot was possibly the reason why it never worked for me.

But anyway, do join in if you hear any singing. It lifts the spirits remarkably. 

But you have to do your best to sing at exactly the same pitch as the others, or it doesn't count.

Thing To Be Today: in unison. This word comes from the Latin ūnisonus. The uni- bit means one, and sonus sound.




Monday, 9 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: onion.

In the early days of online translation I once asked a computer to turn a review from the Korean language into English.

One phrase I shall always remember, so pregnant was it with luminous meaning. It talked of the green onion of the orchestra.

The green onion of the orchestra...I  still feel there is some great burgeoning revelation to be had, there, somewhere, if only I knew what it was.

Spotting an onion is easy, whether it's green, brown, white, pink or red (and especially if it's in an orchestra). Onions are at the heart of so many soups, stews, pies and curries. You can even make an onion cake.

If you live in Eastern Europe then you are likely to see onion domes on top of church towers:

File:Onion domes of Cathedral of the Annunciation.JPG
Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Kremlin, Moscow. Photo by Petar Milošević

and if you still have a typewriter then you might well use onion skin paper for your carbon copies. Even if you don't have a typewriter, you may use onion skin paper for origami or calligraphy or tracing. It doesn't contain any onions (it does have some cotton content, though) but it has the same translucent look and crackly feel under the fingers as an onion's skin.

If all else fails, consult an expert in something or other. He or she is bound to know his onions.*

Spot the Frippet: onion. This word comes from the Old French oignon, from the Latin unio. It's related to our word union, which comes from the Latin ūnus, one. The idea is that all the layers enclose one heart, unlike garlic, say, which has many cloves.

*Sorry.


Sunday, 8 October 2017

Sunday Rest: burpee. Word Not To Use Today.

Someone my age should be able to do five burpees in a row. Well, that's what it said in the newspaper.

Five what? 

It sounded a most unpleasant, but I looked it up.

A burpee is, apparently, a form of exercise. You squat down with your hands on the floor, then kick out your legs straight behind you, Then you pull them back in again to a squatting position, stand up straight with your hands stretched up as far as they'll go, then get down into a hands-on-floor squat again.

Someone my age is then supposed to do all that again four times.

Personally, I would imagine that anyone with any sort of experience or maturity will have more sense than attempt to do anything of the sort. 

Word Not To Use Today: burpee. This form of exercise was developed in the 1930s by the American physiologist Royal H Burpee.

I would have called it the royal, myself.




Saturday, 7 October 2017

Saturday Rest:: Hymn to Diana by Ben Jonson

Diana is the goddess of today's gorgeous moon.

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
Bless us then with wishéd sight,
Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal-shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever:
Thou that mak'st a day of night - 
Goddess excellently bright.



Words to make the moon more beutiful yet.

(Hesperus is the evening star, and Cynthia is another name for Diana.)

Word To Use Today: moonlight. The word moon comes from the Old English mōna.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Word To Use Today: attar.

A word with an -ar ending has long been for me a thing of wild romance and mystery. I think it began with my long and wistful though unsuccessful search through the atlas for the fabled town of Orientar (you know, Orientar: where the three kings come from).

Then there's attar, avatar, hussar, pulsar and nectar...all mysterious and lovely things.

Attar practically always comes, in literature at least, from roses: it's the scent of timeless houris draped teasingly amongst shimmering silks, a note of voluptuousness produced from the gorgeous damask rose.

File:Rosa Rose de Rescht.jpg
photo by Florian Moekel

I long to see that lady reclining on her divan in Orientar, languidly dizzy with her own perfume.

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Odalisque.jpg
painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Unfortunately I live in a time and place where the top-selling perfume is called Babe Power.

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: attar. This word comes from the Persian 'atir, perfumed, from 'itr, perfume, and before that from Arabic.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Critical grammar: a rant.

But does grammar matter?

I mean, what is standard English, anyway? As long as we know what's meant, then (snobbery aside) is there any real and tangible downside to the odd mistake?

Will it cost actual money?

Yes it will - and this is how it happened to me.

I recently got an email purporting to be from my very large, very international, and reassuringly dull bank. There was a link involved. The message began:

Dear Mrs Prue,
There is a correspondence relating to account ending **** available for you to view in My documents through Online Banking.

Note the misuse of the word correspondence to mean message, and the missing definite article (the) before account.

Well, only a fool would fall for that, so I ignored it.

Reader, how can I tell you? It was genuine. Genuinely from a genuine senior official (Head of Digital) at the genuine bank. Ignoring it meant losing genuine money.

I am, honestly, in despair.

How on earth can I be expected to identify criminals if it's not through their ignorance of grammar?

Word To Use Today: correspondence. This word comes from the Latin corrēspondēre, from respondēre, to respond.










Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: hongi.

What's the point of greeting someone?

Well, it depends. It may be a simple way of saying here I am! or hey, listen to me! A handshake is basically an agreement that the participants aren't going to attack each other for the duration of the meeting. A bow may be a quite precisely formulated show of respect.

But you have to be careful, because you may be getting more than you bargain for when you greet someone.

The Maori hongi, which involves two people pressing their foreheads and noses together while exchanging breath, is a formal greeting and performs some of the functions as a handshake.

But there are snags to the hongi. For a start, there's a traditional feeling that exchanging breath has an exchanging-soul aspect to it, which one doesn't normally expect with a handshake (unless you're accepting a job at a major investment bank); and, as well, the performance of the hongi means, technically that you are Tangata whenua, one of the people of the land.

This is, of course, a huge privilege. It does come with minor disadvantages, though, such as a duty to help out in any imminent battles and the getting in of the harvest. 

It gives a whole new meaning to keep your nose out of trouble, doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: hongi. This word is Māori, of course.






Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Thing To Do Today: pandiculate.

One of the nice things about words is that they can give us dignity in the midst of our human frailty.

When we remember that our incoherent rabbiting on is in fact the act of speaking prose; that red-eyed snivelling can also be termed a bitter lamentation; and that a sneeze is technically a sternutation, then we can't help but feel slightly less ridiculous.

So how about a little pandiculation?

To pandiculate means to yawn and stretch. 

Yes, just like that.

But you feel quite business-like and important, now, don't you.

Thing To Do Today: pandiculate. This word comes from the Latin pandiculare, from pendere. to stretch.


Monday, 2 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something from John MacAdam or John McAdam.

Where would we be without John McAdam?

John Loudon McAdam.jpg

Still bumping along a rutted track saying are we nearly there yet? probably. Possibly not even bothering to set out.

Where would we be without John Macadam?

John Macadam (1827–1865).png

A nut short of a poisonous cookie, that's where.

John Macadam was born in Glasgow, and John McAdam was born in Ayr, so they were both Scots (though John Mac didn't get famous until he got to Australia). 

John McAdam invented the macadamised road - that is, one made of small broken stones, in later versions usually bound together with tar or asphalt (John McAdam's nickname, Tar McAdam, has given us tarmac, too, even though the system of road-building called tarmac was actually developed long after John McAdam's death by Edgar Purnell Hooley).

John MacAdam was a politician in Victoria, Australia, who passed laws to regulate doctors, the safety of food, who was responsible for the supplies taken by the doomed Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia (the sad outcome wasn't at all his fault), and was altogether so large and red-haired efficient and larger-than-life in his position as Hon Secretary of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria that he had the macadamia nut named after him.

Both great benefactors of the world: but would you rather be famous for a road surface or a nut?

Difficult, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: something from John McAdam or John MacAdam. John McAdam's name should really have been John McGregor - so we might have had macgregorised roads - but his family changed its name for political reasons.



Sunday, 1 October 2017

Sunday Rest: mildew. Word Not To Use Today.

The worst thing about the word mildew is that it sounds rather lovely.

Even when you look inside the word at its roots (see below) it's strangely beautiful.

But the word is an assassin. It might murmur of sweetness and the dropping of gentle mercy, but it's an invisibly-flying group of organisms bent on making your garden collapse under an onslaught of powdery decay, and your bathroom look, shamefully, as if it hasn't seen a scourer for a decade.

But it sings of honey and freshness as it lays waste to our roses.

Dastard!

File:Powdery mildew.JPG
photo by Pollinator at English language Wikipedia

Word Not To Use Today: mildew. From the Old English mildēaw, from mil-, honey, which is connected to mēli- the Greek word for honey; the dew bit comes from the Old English dēaw, dew.